Under-Diagnosed and Often Overlooked: Elder Abuse in South Africa

This article is the first part of a two-part series on elder abuse in South Africa. Click here to read Part 2.


This year marks the tenth anniversary of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). The United Nations established WEAAD to bring communities around the globe together in raising awareness about elder abuse. Although this problem is considered a public health issue, the World Health Organization has recognized that elder abuse remains a taboo which is often underestimated and ignored by many societies. This problem is perpetuated by societal attitudes and a lack of public knowledge about elder abuse. The abuse of older people is often viewed as a personal matter – it is not openly discussed. As a result, the prevalence of elder abuse is under-reported worldwide.

In South Africa, organizations like the Saartje Baartman Centre in Cape Town are helping those affected by elder abuse.  Dorothy Gertse the head Social Worker at the center reports that a growing number of elderly women are seeking assistance due to abuse by younger relatives. Elder abuse is a broad term that is comprised of various acts such as physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, neglect, exploitation, abandonment, and financial/economic abuse.

South Africa is currently experiencing a rise in economic abuse– individuals are seeking access to financial resources such as pensions and the homes of vulnerable older adults. Gertse states that family members are escorting the elderly to pension pay points and confiscating their finances. The rate of abuse has increased within the last 6 years; Femada Shamam, Chief Operating Officer for the Association for the Aged reports that in the 2010-2011 there were 1458 reported cases; this rose to 2497 cases in the 2012-2013 financial year.

The Older Person’s Act exists within South Africa’s Constitution and outlines the government’s obligation to protect the rights and uphold the safety of older persons. However, Shamam reports that many are unfamiliar with the act, and their role in upholding it. He states, “If you go to the police to report an incident, they wouldn’t know they have the authority to remove the alleged perpetrators.” Thankfully organizations like the Saartje Baartman Centre and The Go Turquoise for the Elderly are creating awareness surrounding issues faced by older persons in South Africa.

Andria Reta covers Africa for Global Health Aging. She is a Gerontologist and Professor of Health Administration.

Old and Homeless in Australia: It Can Happen to Anyone

In Australia, on any given night, 1 in 200 people are homeless.” One fifth of all people who are older than 55 years of age are homeless; many more live in unsecured housing.

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What is homelessness and what may cause someone to become homeless? A person is considered homeless when he or she does not have a conventional home and lives on the streets or in a park. Someone may be at risk of homelessness when living in unsecured housing. There are certain reasons that can cause homelessness which may include lack of social bonding and support from family or friends. What if you are in a crisis and cannot receive help from the closest people in your life—your family and friends? What would you do? You may think it can never happen to you but that may not be the case. Homelessness can happen to anybody. Young, old, women, and men.

Today, Australia and most other developed nations face more issues with divorces, family breakdown, and higher rent for affordable housing. Due to the growing aging population, homelessness will become a rising issue because of the lack of money to build affordable housing or lack of space for seniors in existing homeless shelters.

ABC Australia reports that Australian older women outnumber the men in homeless shelters. In fact, 9% of single women over the age of 45 are in crisis accommodation and that number will continue to rise. The woman being interviewed by ABC makes it clear that it can happen to anybody. She notes that “there is a fine line between having a roof over your head and having nothing.” Imagine if you, from one day to another, lost everything and couldn’t turn to anyone.

The report “Homelessness and older Australians: Scoping the Issues” reports that there are systems in place in Australia that give the homeless population access to certain services. However, the homeless believe that their complex needs are not addressed. In addition, they have difficulties to access those services and obtain the needed information because the service system in itself is too complex. There needs to be an increased collaboration and integration of existing service departments.

Australia must think of sustainable ideas and strategies to increase and invest in the affordable housing stock. The government, non-governmental organizations and service providers also need to step up and create strategies to reduce the bureaucracy and make easier access to the services the homeless population needs easier.

Martina Lesperance
is a Health Educator and Screening Technician in El Paso, Texas.